Laos drug busts still only half the story

opinion February 21, 2017 01:00

By The Nation

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The national police chief reveals an ongoing crackdown – and nothing about traffickers’ elite friendships



Late but better than never, Lao police last week finally broke a disturbing silence and acknowledged the arrest of more than 30 members of dope-peddling syndicates, one of which is said to be even bigger than that run by recently detained drug lord Xaysana Keophimpha.

It is to be hoped that the arrests signal a serious effort to bring the drug gangs to heel and that prosecutions proceed in earnest. But of course the story runs far deeper, with accusations circulating that the drug gangs have friends in the government and the ruling party. If such collusion exists and is not terminated, the regional narcotics trade will continue unabated as new gang leaders will emerge to replace the ones exposed or jailed.

Xaysana’s arrest last month in Thailand had citizens of Laos asking online why authorities there were remaining silent about the development. Under pressure, Brigadier General Thonglek Mangnormek, director general of the Lao General Police Department, called a press conference. He claimed that authorities had been quietly conducting a crusade against Xaysana’s syndicate since September and had thus far arrested 33 people and seized various kinds of drugs along with weapons, jewellery and cash in several currencies. Assets suspected to derive from illegal activities have been frozen, the chief said, including houses, hotels, marketplaces, restaurants, furniture factories, warehouses, apartments, gas stations and vehicles.

Among those arrested, Thonglek said, is Khonepasong Soukkaseum, alias Xiengtheu, the alleged leader of a narcotics gang the police believe is more widespread than Xaysana’s transnational operation.

Khonepasong, a resident of Vientiane, was arrested along with three associates on January 10 – nine days before Xaysana and three other Lao nationals were nabbed at Suvarnabhumi Airport following an aborted attempt by Lao police, Thonglek said. Other associates of Xaysana were arrested in Khammuan province and in Vientiane on January 20, the day after he was caught. Those now in custody include Kinoy Phaxay, alias Aenoy or Noy-akad, who was picked up with 16 associates in September. Arrested in December were Bokeo province couple Vath Philabanh and Keo “Kew” Philabanh. Taken into custody on January 24 were Khonethai “Sew” Khotsombath of Savannakhet province and two associates.

Chief Thonglek vowed that the crackdown would continue and that the police would not lower their guard, but he declined to say anything about plans to root out the networks or their alleged connections with high-ranking officials in the government and ruling party. The belief is widespread in Laos that Khonepasong and Xaysana have strong ties to wealthy, powerful people in Laos. Hints of this take the form of cosy photographs posted online indicating warm relations and suggesting business connections with the children of senior government officials. 

The drug lords’ efforts to make use of such connections appear to be overt as they diversify from drugs into legitimate businesses such as logging, rubber and the hospitality trade. What remains to be revealed is how they covertly use these connections to protect their illegal activities. 

By most accounts Xaysana enjoyed access to high society through the children of former ruling party members. Now we are told that Khonepasong’s network is larger still and perhaps more powerful. If these two really are “big fish”, as Chief Thonglek says, their warm links to people in authority demand thorough investigation.

Thonglek, while insisting that his office was working closely with Thai authorities in the current crackdown, offered no clear indication as to whether Laos will seek Xaysana’s extradition from Thailand. Surely that would be the first step in digging into his ties with government officials. The Thai side is ready to cooperate on this. The ball is firmly in Laos’ court.